William Norris, 1818 - 1895

by Brian Stevenson
last updated November, 2019

William Norris moved to San Francisco in 1850, just as the California Gold Rush was starting. Realizing that the chances of financial success were greater if he provided services for miners, rather than doing the mining himself, Norris became involved with a local shipping business. He later became an officer in the company that brought drinking water to San Francisco. Having built a fortune, Norris joined several civic and scientific groups, including the San Francisco Microscopical Society. He was especially interested in diatoms, and donated a large number of his slides to the Society. The example shown in Figures 1 and 2 shows skill in separating diatom frustules from accompanying detritus, and controlled spread of the specimens. Combined with Norris’ custom labels and the fine finish of his preparations, William Norris’ microscope slides should be welcome in any collection.

Figure 1. ca. 1880s microscope slide of diatoms from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), by William Norris.


Figure 2. View of the Sandwich Island diatoms on the Norris slide that is shown in Figure 1. The preparation contains large numbers of clean, whole frustules, of a variety of species and shapes. Photographed with a C-mounted digital SLR camera and 10x objective lens, with magenta filter.


William Norris was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on May 23, 1818. According to an obituary, “At an early age he developed an adventurous spirit and left his paternal roof for what was then the frontier; reaching the Mississippi river he engaged in steamboating and for several years he followed this life, thoroughly mastering the business, and finally made his home in St. Louis”.

When the news of the discovery of gold in California reached the ‘States’, Mr. Norris started across the plains with a party which left St. Joseph, Mo., early in 1850. Thoroughly acquainted with the business of steamboating, he realized that transportation was as important, and would be as profitable as mining, and he was in a large degree instrumental in organizing a company to run steamers between San Francisco and Sacramento”. By 1861, Norris was Secretary of the California Steam Navigation Company, which ran boats up and down the rivers between San Francisco and the gold fields (Figure 3).

In 1866, Norris married Julia Marie Wiggin King, the widow of a San Francisco minister. William and Julia traveled to New York for their wedding (she was originally from Boston, Massachusetts; one or both presumably had family connections to New York). Julia had two children from her first marriage, but she and William did not have any further children.

Norris’ shipping interests expanded, and in 1869 he became Vice President of the North Pacific Transportation Company. This business ran ships along the western coast of America, and some international destinations (Figure 4)

William joined the San Francisco Microscopical Society on 1874, two years after the society’s founding. As noted above, he became fascinated with diatoms. Over the years, he made numerous presentations of the topic, and donated many preparations to the society. For example, in 1885, it Norris “presented a set of nineteen slides, being the first installment of a series, which is intended to be a complete collection of all known Californian diatoms”. In 1887, “Mr. Norris exhibited a slide mounted by Bourgoyne, of Paris (i.e. Eugene Bourgogne), which contained 215 distinct varieties of diatoms from the famous Santa Monica earth, all arranged in beautiful form … It is a most entrancing object to one affected by the diatomania”.

He was a founding member of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, in 1889. Norris was involved with civic organizations, such as being a trustee of the San Francisco Free Public Library.

Around 1880, Norris became Secretary of the Spring Valley Water Works, which had a virtual monopoly for delivering drinking water into San Francisco. The company owned water rights in the hills south of San Francisco and across the Bay, and right-of-way to pipe into the city (Figure 6).

Financial success and civic associations brought William Norris to the upper echelons of San Francisco society. The 1891 San Francisco Blue Book stated that “Norris, Mr. and Mrs. William” accepted visitors on Thursdays.

William Norris passed away on September 25, 1895.

Figure 3. An 1866 advertisement for the California Steam Navigation Company, of which William Norris was a long-time officer.


Figure 4. An 1871 advertisement for the North Pacific Transportation Company. William Norris was Vice President.


Figure 5. A map of the Spring Water Works holdings and pipelines, from shortly after William Norris’ death. Adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/detail/26470/general-map-of-the-spring-valley-water-works-hermann-fa-s-schussler.



The American Monthly Microscopical Journal (1887) Report of the October 26 meeting of the San Francisco Microscopical Society, page 232-234

Collection of Circulars of Various State Commanderies (1895) William Norris, part 4

The English Mechanic and the World of Science (1885) Report of the July 24 meeting of the San Francisco Microscopical Society, Vol. 41, page 472

Lewis and Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (1895) “the California, Oregon & Mexico Steamship Company was reorganized in 1869 as the North Pacific Transportation Company … William Norris, vice president”, edited by E.W. Wright, page 178

The Naturalists' Directory (1877) “Norris, William, 516 California St., San Francisco, Cal. Mic. C. Ex”, Cassino, Boston, page 97

New York Evening Post (1866) “All Souls Parsonage, Thursday, Apr. 12, Rev. Dr. H.W. Bellow, William Norris to Julia M. King, both of San Francisco”.

Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1889) “The minutes of the meeting of May 25, 1889, were read and approved. Sixty-five persons were elected to membership under the provisions of the newly adopted Article VII of the By-Laws. For the convenience of the Society a full list of its present members is given below. This list includes the members elected at the present meeting. …Hon. Wm. Norris, 927 Bush Street, San Francisco, Cal”, Vol. 1, page 45-46

San Francisco Blue Book and Club Directory (1891) “Norris, Mr. and Mrs. William; 927 Bush. Thursday”, page 61

San Francisco City Directory (1861) “Norris Wm. secretary Cal. S. N. Co. office NE cor Front and Jackson, dwl 829 Sacramento”, page 260

San Francisco City Directory (1862) “Norris William, secretary Cal. S. Nav. Co. office NE cor Front and Jackson, dwl 618 California”, page 298

San Francisco City Directory (1869) “Norris William, vice-president North Pacific Transportation Co., 426 California, dwl Lick House”, page 472

San Francisco City Directory (1872) “Norris William, vice-president North Pacific Trans. Co., 426 California, office 217 Sansom, dwl Grand Hotel”, page 488

San Francisco City Directory (1872) “Norris William, secretary Spring Valley Water Works, office 516 California, r. 1710 Franklin ”, page 805

San Francisco City Directory (1890) “Norris William, secretary Spring Valley Water Works, office 516 California, r. 927 Bush ”, page 1008

San Francisco Free Public Library Bulletin (1895) In memory of Capt. Wm. Norris, Vol. 1, page 75

Shuck, Oscar Tully (1905) “In November, 1848, he assumed the pastorate of the Hollis Street Church, in Boston. On his birthday in the next month, he married Miss Julia Wiggin, of East Boston. After eleven years' service in Boston, Mr. King accepted a call from the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco. He arrived in this city on Saturday, April 28, 1860, and preached his first sermon on the next morning … Mr. King's widow, as beautiful as Mr. King was intellectual, became the wife of Mr. William Norris, Secretary of the Spring Valley Water Company. He died a few years ago, leaving to her very great riches in her second widowhood. Mrs. King herself passed away, in the fullness of years, in 1904. The children of Mr. and Mrs. King are a daughter and son. The first is most happily married to Hon. Horace Davis, the prosperous business man and scholar, President of the Sperry Flour Company, who has been President of the University of California, and who also represented San Francisco in Congress for two terms, 1877-1881. The son, Frederic R. King, was in full practice as a lawyer in San Francisco for seven or eight years, leaving the profession in 1895 to enter commercial life, and becoming president of a lumber company”, page 13

Transactions of the San Francisco Microscopical Society (1893) “Members: Norris, William, ‘74”, page 61

U.S. census and other records, accessed through ancestry.com